[4 November 2009]
When Girlfriends first aired in 2000, director Spike Lee criticized the show for portraying African-American women as stereotypically oversexed (“Female Trouble”, Samuels, Newsweek, 2002). Yes, it’s true; the black women of Girlfriends talk about, and often engage in sex. And one should not underestimate the import of interpreting the meaning of such a depiction on primetime television without taking into consideration the larger representational context in which it resides.
In the case of Girlfriends, this context includes centuries of representing black people as carriers of deviant sexual behavior. Thus, some viewers, such as Lee, are compelled to compare the women in Girlfriends to the stereotype of the lusty Jezebel.
The characters of Girlfriends: Seventh Season, however, are not mere racial stereotypes. Like Sex and the City, to which it is often compared, Girlfriends is more product and champion of a pro-sex “postfeminist” culture than it is a relic of the past. While “postfeminist” culture comes with its own set of complications that are worthy of critique, suffice it to say, Girlfriends: The Seventh Season does not exploit the myth of black hypersexuality. Taken as a whole, the women of Girlfriends attempt to illustrate some of the diversity that exists among middle-class African-American women. The girlfriends may be types, but they are not essentialized into just a few simple traits.
Girlfriends: The Seventh Season returns with only three of the show’s four original types: Joan Clayton (Tracee Ellis Ross), the attorney turned restaurateur who desperately wants to marry; Maya Wilkes (Golden Brooks), a working class wife and mother turned “authoress”; and Lynn Searcy (Persia White), the biracial, over-degreed, sexually-free freeloader who was raised by adoptive white parents.
Missing this season is Toni Childs (Jill Marie Jones), real estate broker and born-again gold-digger. After a falling out with Joan at the end of the sixth season, we learn that Toni has moved to New York. Though not an official girlfriend, Toni’s absence has been filled by Monica (Keesha Sharp), a product of the black Chicago elite.
Adding to development of the show’s characters, Girlfriends: The Seventh Season finds the girlfriends on a path of personal growth. Maya is evolving as a mother. Lynn is settling down to pursue her passion as a musician.
Fans of the show who were disappointed at the way in which the writers demeaned Joan’s character in the sixth season with its “It Girl” storyline should be pleased that Girlfriends: The Seventh Season gives Joan back her dignity. Joan is learning to be comfortable with herself, as well as to better negotiate relationships with men. “Just Joan”, for example, centers on her character discovering how to be happy without a man, and offers a humorous scenario that involves Joan going out to dinner alone.
Girlfriends: The Seventh Season also continues the show’s established history of dealing with subject matter that is both political and personal. Naturally, some of these issues specifically reference blackness. Others are more “universal”. “I Want My Baby Back” is adept at handling both. In this episode Maya’s teenage son, Jabari (Kendr’e Berry) considers living up to the sexualized expectations that his suburban white classmates have of him as a black male. Challenging the stereotype, the show reveals that while his classmates are sexually active, Jabari is still a virgin.
On a lighter note, the same episode also features Joan getting better acquainted with her new boyfriend, Aaron (Richard T. Jones). Aaron lives in an austere apartment that has only one bathroom. Joan has been sleeping over with Aaron as of late. Come morning though, Joan rushes off. Aaron presumes that Joan’s abrupt departures are due to her discomfort with his modest lifestyle and the circumstances of his past. Turns out, Joan just needed to use the bathroom.
The laughs starts out slow in Girlfriends: The Seventh Season, but after a few episodes the momentum picks up. Ross has earned the NAACP Image Award (2007, 2009) and the BET Comedy Award (2005) for her performance in this series, but in the “mainstream” her talent as a romantic comedienne goes unrecognized. An awkward beauty, Ross transforms from glamorous to geeky to goofball in a single episode.
Complementing Ross’s comic talent, as in previous seasons, the funniest character is not a girlfriend at all, but the guy friend, William Dent (Reggie Hayes). A Republican attorney and business partner to Joan, William also defies stereotyping. In another context, perhaps, William’s authenticity as a black man might be called into question. Here however, William, whose demeanor is reminiscent of comedian Dave Chappelle performing whiteness, is just another example of difference that emanates from the African-American experience. Nonetheless, in “Bad Blood” the show does offer self-conscious recognition of William’s affect, and cleverly plays upon competing images of blackness, taunting William with an alter ego that is a “cooler” version of himself.
Girlfriends returned for an eighth and final season, which ended prematurely due to the writer’s strike. That it survived as long as it did is credit to a show that gives us multilayered and flawed characters who contribute to the ongoing struggle over the meaning of blackness.
For extras on this three-disc set Girlfriends’ creator Mara Brock Akil provides fleeting commentary on five of the 21 episodes.